Many of you didn’t have the pleasure of attending the inaugural Aurizon Great Debate at the annual Aurizon Women’s Conference, as I did, last Thursday, which means that you may have missed me opening the debate as the first speaker for the affirmative team arguing that gender targets don’t work.
Some of you may even be wondering what on earth one would say against gender targets, given that it is a truth universally acknowledged that gender targets improve gender diversity.
So, although I have definitely been convinced by the negative team (the winning team), the diversity team and our CEO & MD that my arguments are flawed, and I am definitely 110% in support of Aurizon’s suite of diversity initiatives (which include targets), I have included my speech text below as some food for thought:
Mr Chair, Ladies, and Gentlemen,
I have a dream that women will be treated as equal workplace contributors in terms of representation, capability and respect.
No… I have a dream that women will ride the wave of affirmative action to the top, with no man able to stand in their way.
No… I have a dream that women will dominate the top of the corporate ladder, digging their stilettos into the faces of the unfortunate men below them, smashing through the glass ceiling with the tattered remains of their self-dignity and toasting their success at the expense of everyone else’s misfortunes.
No! That dream sounds more like a nightmare!
Mr Chair, Ladies and Gentlemen, the topic of our debate today is:
That gender diversity targets don’t work. You can’t force equality
Let’s take a look at what this is really saying. Allow me to define the topic. There are five key words…
First of all, let’s examine gender…
We recognise that this can be complex social concept but for the purposes of this debate, we’re going with a really simple definition. Gender is the state of being a woman or a man.
Diversity is a reality created by individuals from a broad spectrum of demographic and philosophical differences, and, of course, it’s in our blood.
What about targets…
Some may have you believe that targets are very different to quotas, that quotas mean that we enforce hiring a particular number of women but targets are just a goal, just a noble dream. But let’s be real, in practice, targets and quotas differ only in the way they are spelled. When your CEO gets up in front of the world and declares that we are working towards a target, you don’t sit there and say to yourself, “Yeah, we’ll just see how we go with that”. We know that this number is important, this number is measurable, this number is reportable and we become single-mindedly focused on getting this number.
When you force something you take an action that is in opposition to the natural state of things, that is met with resistance or ambivalence.
Finally, what do we mean by equality?
We believe that equality is more than just having the same number of skirts as trousers on seats in an office, on a train or in a depot. Equality encompasses all aspects of a worker’s contribution and workplace experience, particularly the way they are treated by their colleagues. True equality is about so much more than just the numbers.
So wrapping up all of those definitions, we on the affirmative team have taken the topic to mean that: You can’t impose a culture where women and men are fully accepted as equal workforce contributors by reserving “jobs for the girls”.
Mr Chair, Ladies and Gentlemen, we believe that when it comes to equality, targets don’t hit the mark.
As the first speaker for the affirmative team, I am going to demonstrate how targets don’t work at an organisational level. Sarah Dearman, our first rate second speaker, will be telling you of the negative effects that gender targets inflict at an individual level. And our fearless leader on the side of right, Scott Riedel, will sum up our case and leave you with no doubt in your minds that when it comes to equality, targets don’t hit the mark
So why do we even bother with diversity, other than because it’s the right thing to do? We bother because we want our organisation to reap the benefits of a diverse workforce, celebrating the differences of individuals to become more than merely a sum of our parts. But is enforcing gender targets going to deliver us to our desired destination? Not likely. Gender targets don’t hit the mark for Aurizon because they prevent us from hiring the best people for the job and they stifle advancements in cultural change.
First let’s examine how targets stop us hiring the best people. Targets are inconsistent with a merit based system where people are judged on skills and talent rather than the number of legs on their 46th chromosome. We go to a lot of trouble to get the best person for the job. We recognise that by hiring the best people we will get the best business outcomes. But if this is the case, why are we pursuing gender targets? Why would we rob our decision makers of the right to pick the applicant who is the best fit for their teams?
In a 2014 study commissioned by leading business magazine, Forbes, it was found that when a job advertisement mentions that leadership positions have been earmarked for women, 25% of potential male applicants don’t even bother applying. Perhaps that’s not surprising. But this study also reports that 13% of female applicants react in the same negative way. But, why would that be? Because tokenism not only has a negative effect on those it disadvantages, but makes those it “helps” feel like frauds. But I’ll leave that for Sarah to explain later. So your gender targets are evaporating your pool of quality men and women. And the pool of women was probably only a puddle to start with. This doesn’t sound like the right start to recruit anyone competent, let alone that best person for the job.
Mr Chair, ladies and gentlemen, we’re not only missing the mark. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot.
In a similar way, jumping on the gender target bandwagon is a sure-fire way to derail an organisation’s journey to cultural maturity. Research tells us that successful businesses have more women at the top. Deloitte, one of the big four professional services firms, has produced a report called the Gender Dividend. This report states that the Fortune 500 companies who have the most women on their boards out-perform those with the least women on their boards by 53 percent.
So we hear this and all rush to add some token women in leadership roles. But this is like drawing spots on yourself with a marker and expecting to get chicken pox. Gender targets deal with the symptom, not the actual disease. We shouldn’t be asking, “How do we get more women?” but, “Why don’t we already have more women?”
When a business has an inclusive culture, it attracts and retains a diverse group of people, including women. Having a diverse group of people leads to balanced teams, open minds, more creative problem solving and new ideas. New ideas lead to business improvements and measurable organisational success, and that’s just what Aurizon needs to be world class!
But enforcing gender targets short circuits the process by trying to get the outcome without putting in the hard work and ultimately, it distracts us from fostering a culture that self-sustains improvement and achievement.
Mr Chair, Ladies and Gentlemen, we’re not only missing the mark. We’re aiming at the wrong bull’s eye.
I have a dream that women will be treated as equal workplace contributors. But my dream will never come true if we force organisations to give up their right to hire quality people and if we distract them from fostering long-lasting cultural improvements.
When it comes to equality, targets miss the mark entirely.
And now after all that seriousness, some photos:
Happy International Women’s Day!
Oh, and also, any menfolk out there, sign up to this pledge: www.heforshe.org “a movement for gender equality that brings together one half of humanity in support of the other half of humanity, for the benefit of all”.
If you’re reading my blog, and/or know me, you’ve probably been supporting me and my ideas for years, so why not make it internet official? Also, Hermione Granger says you should…